With the season opener just a scant few days away, Jeff Bevino was brimming with optimism regarding the prospects of his Notre Dame-Fairfield squad.
Why not? The Lancers returned seven of the nine players with at least 20 hits and their No. 1 pitcher who were all key cogs during a run to the 2016 CIAC Class S championship game.
Then, just like that, came a piece of news that left Bevino wondering just what might transpire during the first few weeks of the season.
Ace pitcher Madison Letizia suffered a broken leg less than a week before the start of the season. Bevino wasn’t sure if the senior, who won 16 games while batting .500 as a junior, would be able to take the field at all.
The Lancers were returning six starters, each with a batting average of .350 or higher, but in a sport where pitching is of paramount importance, Bevino figured there would be some bumps in the road.
Well, with Letizia cleared to return, Notre Dame is sitting pretty as the lone remaining undefeated team in the Southwest Conference.
While Notre Dame scored at least 10 runs a total of 11 times in the first 14 games, there were some rough spots. The Lancers rallied from a 6-0 deficit to beat Newtown on April 19. The month of May began with Notre Dame two outs away from a 2-0 loss to Brookfield before emerging with a 3-2 win.
“They never cease to amaze me,” Bevino said. “When you lose one of your best players, especially your pitcher and for our girls to do what they’ve done is absolutely amazing. I think my coaches have done a great job of rallying the troops, making the girls understand that we have to step up and we have to wait for Madison to get back.”
Freshman Breana Brown is 9-0 with a 1.35 earned run average with 80 strikeouts in 52 innings. Tiffany Diao, who transferred in from Christian Heritage, is 5-0 with 0.68 ERA. Now Letizia, a Stratford resident, is back to give the Lancers three quality pitchers to call upon.
The offense could also receive a jolt with the return of Letizia, not that the Lancers need another potent bat with a .459 team batting average.
Junior Lucy Grant leads the way with a .600 average and team-high 33 RBIs. Junior Jillian Howe has a .548 average with team-leading totals of 31 runs scored and 14 stolen bases, senior Dayniera Artis is hitting .526 while Diao (.455), Stratford’s Michaela Luk (.372, nine doubles, 13 extra-base hits), Ansonia’s Shelby Nolan (.432), Brown (.478, 21 RBIs) and Arianna DeNitto (.429) are also hitting over .350 as the Lancers have scored 183 runs in the first 14 games of the season.
“We are very aggressive,” Bevino said. “It took them a long time last year to buy into my system. I just believe in going up there and swinging the bat. They were taking too many good pitches and I really had to come down on them. Some of them are swinging the bat tremendously especially Lucy Grant, Breana Brown has really been a Godsend to us, she is one heck of a softball player.
“We are swinging the bats and one of the things we don’t get a lot of credit for, we run the bases really well. Our girls take advantage of every passed ball, every bobble in the outfield, they’ve bought into our system. It’s been a wonderful group of girls to work with. Somebody was telling me, ‘you were going to 14-0 without your best pitcher,’ I’ve told them you must be (crazy).”
Bevino knows that tough tests remain. Beginning on Wednesday the Lancers play 12-2 Pomperaug, 9-6 New Milford and 12-2 Masuk in a span of six days.
Those games should be beneficial as the Lancers try to take care of some unfinished business after falling 2-0 to Holy Cross in the 2016 Class S title game.
“They are pretty committed,” Bevino said. “They want to get back and I keep on telling them that getting back to where you were is not easy and we can’t consider it a failure if we don’t but they don’t want to hear it.
“We are playing well, we have the tough part of our schedule coming up in the next couple of weeks. They’ve been so receptive of everything we’ve had to talk to them about. I didn’t know what I was coming into when I came here but I rolled into a great group of kids, wonderful kids who really want to work hard and are determined to win. They just go out and play. They don’t like to lose, they are my type of team.”